Menorahs in the mist: Uganda's lost Jews

A London woman went to Uganda in search of gorillias but found a village fighting for Orthodox recognition

By Simon Rocker, August 19, 2010
Carving: the makeshift Menorah

Carving: the makeshift Menorah

When Ros Eisen planned a trip to see the rare mountain gorillas of Uganda, little did she know that it would turn into a one-woman aid mission to one of the world's most remote Jewish communities.

The Jews of Putti village set up on their own a few years ago because the Abayudaya community of eastern Uganda was not Orthodox enough.

Ms Eisen, a retired businesswoman from Belsize Park, north-west London, wanted to spend a few extra days in Uganda at the end of her safari. "I starting fiddling on Google and found the Putti Jews - I knew absolutely nothing about them," she said.

She emailed Putti spiritual leader, Enosh Keki Mainah, before leaving home and arranged to visit.

But when she reached the village after a 45-minute dirt track drive from her hotel, she knew she had to do something to help.

The children wore torn clothes and had no shoes; for many, a kitchen was a handful of tin pots in the corner of a hut. Since they had no mezuzot, they marked their houses by carving menorahs on their doors.

Happy feet: some of the children with the shoes Ros Eisen bought for them

Happy feet: some of the children with the shoes Ros Eisen bought for them

Their bare synagogue had no furniture, save for a simple ark, a table serving as a bimah and just two chairs for the elderly.

"They eat twice a day if they have enough food and once a day if they don't," Ms Eisen said.

But she was struck by their irrepressible faith and the spirit of their leader. "He is a charismatic young man of 35 who's got the shoulders of a 65-year-old to support their burdens," Ms Eisen said. "He has such passion in his faith that no goal seems unachievable to him with God's will."

He speaks and reads Hebrew- though he did not have money to complete his Jewish studies in Nairobi – and composes religious songs for the children to sing.

"They want to be recognised as Orthodox and are prepared to do whatever it takes," she said.

"They need further religious instruction to know about kosher slaughtering and other rituals."

The Putti established religious independence from the Abayudaya 10 years ago.

The Abayudaya were founded in 1919 by a military chieftain Semei Kakangulu, who broke away from the Christianity spread by British missionaries and set up a group which adopted the teachings of the Hebrew Bible.

In recent years, the 1,000-strong community have received support from American Jewry, particularly from the Conservative movement.

According to Ms Eisen, there is even a small Liberal synagogue among them now. But the Putti, who number around 100 adults and 100 children, are committed to an Orthodox lifestyle.

During her six days in the area, Ms Eisen bought shoes for the children, mosquito nets and hens to start an egg business. The new manager of the egg-laying project is Moshe, a carpenter and welder who has struggled to find jobs because he will not work on Shabbat or festivals.

With life hard enough as it is, why add to the hardship by being Jewish, Ms Eisen asked one young man. "Why don't you go with the Christian flow and get missionary aid, I said. He replied, 'Why do I need to speak to God through Jesus when I can speak to him direct?."

Last updated: 2:00pm, August 19 2010